Places and Monuments by Pierre Hébert

March 15, 2021

About Pierre Hébert's Places and Monuments, an ever-evolving series of films and video installations where animation, experimental cinema and documentary intermix.

Nicolas Thys

Nicolas Thys is a professor of film studies at the Université de Paris Nanterre and at Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle. He also teaches at the École des métiers du cinéma d’animation (EMCA). In addition, he is a journalist covering animation cinema for 24 images. In 2019, he co-signed a book in tribute to Pixar Studio published by éditions Ynnis.

List of works in program

Places and Monuments

By Nicolas Thys

On the occasion of the publication of the book Toucher au cinéma by Pierre Hébert, a look back at an always evolving project.

Early August 2020. When we began writing these lines about the series Lieux et monuments [Places and Monuments] by Pierre Hébert, filmmaker, host, performer and writer on Quebec cinema, Beirut was on fire and in mourning, following a colossal explosion. We already knew it was not a bombing, that it was accidental, but the images would remain etched in the media and in our minds for a long time and soon everyone would have their own images mixed up with those that were filmed. By an unsettling coincidence, when we scrolled back through the filmmaker’s blog, [1] curious to know when he started writing it because it seemed contemporaneous to his film series, we found that his two first blogposts, dated in March and published in May 2007, read the following:

‘24/03/2007 – 18:30 – Beirut. […] I arrived in Beirut this afternoon and this seems to be the right moment to start writing. […] Eight months ago there was war here, the whole country was being bombed by Israeli airplanes. […] Bob and I decided that the piece we were currently working on, that we later entitled Special Forces, somehow had to assess this outrageous situation.’ [2]

‘Bob’ is Bob Ostertag, an American sound artist and activist with whom Hébert has collaborated on numerous performances and improvisations since the 1990s, particulary the Living Cinema. This project, which began in 2000, took different forms that combined digital filmmaking or animations etched into film with concrete sound improvisation. One of the films to come out of the project was Between Science and Garbage [Entre la science et les ordures]. In his post, the filmmaker describes the conditions under which he arrived in Lebanon, the political instability there, his thoughts on keeping a diary or blog, and his career, which had taken a radically new turn following his departure from the NFB in 2000, where he had worked for more than 35 years as a filmmaker and then a producer.

In his second blog post, published the following morning at 8:30 a.m., Hébert attempts to explain the reasons for his participation in the Irtijal festival and his motivations for performing Living Cinema, despite the dangers involved. ‘What is the point of coming to Beirut to show to the Lebanese the bombing of their cities and the corpses of their dead children, things they have been experiencing in real life?’ A good question, current, and relevant to another, solo, performance by Ostertag in the former Yugoslavia, a little while earlier. For Hébert, it is about more than taking a political stance, it is a ‘visceral’ need, a reaction to a crazy situation. He describes the origin of the trip as ‘a movement of the hearth’, a poetic typo that evokes the movement of the heart as much as of the earth, a double interior and exterior movement united as one, a foyer between two Hs.

With regards to the creation of the Places and Monuments series, 2007 seems to have been a pivotal moment, a tipping point. He was already there, though not entirely; the preoccupations were already present as well as, as he writes, an immediate reaction to the place in which he found himself, which he needed to express. He also rethought the relationship between the work and the reality. Less improvisation, a return to the sound artists that he knew well, and a device involving filming outdoors, in situ, with a camera whose gaze creates the site in the first instance. While he has always been in step with what was going on in the world, in this series, he would capture this through filming everyday scenes, finding traces there.  

Places and Monuments 1

Places and Monuments is a series of long and short films and video installations that are constantly being developed. The device is simple, with variations from film to film: a static camera, a focal plan in the medium distance focussing on a site, a monument, and even on the people who stop the filmmaker in the street to speak to him and whom he doesn’t cut off. The world beyond the frame sometimes seeps into the work and reminds us, in the live animated performances, of the artist at work, who forms an integral part of the film – a film that therefore becomes irreducible to simple images projected onto a screen. At times, the subject of the work is directly political and any viewer who is up to speed with international current affairs cannot fail to see this (a communist monument in Prague, a statue of a Confederate General in Charlottesville); other times it is less so, for example the image of rockface cracks in Rivière au Tonnerre or the return to André Bazin.

Hébert records what happens at a precise point – that of the camera’s gaze – at a precise moment – his. Later, in postproduction, he erases, uncovers, scratches, engraves, draws, and animates. He works on the image itself, adding layers, loops, and movement. He surrounds it in other images, and synthesizes them. Chris Marker would probably say that he creates or adapts ‘zones’, in reference to Sans soleil and the manipulations of Hayao Yamaneko [3]. Above all, he brings back the spirit or the logos of the site, perfectly aware of his inscription in time.  

Then, sometimes – usually at the beginning and the end of the films – he uses a dissolve, a double exposure, a change of frame. With the exception of Film de Bazin, a feature-length film with a more complex structure, narrated by two voiceovers while the other films in the series are almost silent (but always with sound), the ‘cut’ doesn’t exist in Places and Monuments. Even in the two installations – the well-named Cycling Utrecht, the idea of the ‘cycle’ being fundamental to the construction of films, and Berlin - The Passage of Time – the model used is the split screen and, therefore, the inscription of different situations in the same frame, rather than a succession of sudden edits. The transitions are always faded in, intermittent superimpositions of varying lengths, passages between two connections to a filmed object or to two spaces by one superimposed layer, allowing for traces of the previous and/or the next frame to remain visible for a moment. In this way, he gives the sequence an ambiguous relationship to time, in which the present is at once a part of the past that’s already taken place and a future that hasn’t quite happened yet.

The dissolve also – above all? – lends an element of metamorphosis. It seems to become, for the live action shot, a modulation, an alteration of state and therefore in essence a filmic style for what is not, in itself, stop motion animation.

No limit

While editing a work often helps viewers by allowing them to grasp certain precise aspects, the act of chopping it up leaves out a fundamental aspect: everything only makes sense as a whole. This is all the more true for Hébert, whose works, impressively consistent since the 1960s, essentially evoke layers that accumulate and compress. His thinking is haunted by politics, activism, and an archaeology of the present, but also by memory and technology. His practice revolves around improvisation, working by hand, and therefore craftsmanship, and the relationships between animation and live action in filmmaking.

Furthermore, the borders between the projects he has undertaken are porous and they all end up responding to each other. He began his first experiments in digital filmmaking in the 1960s and continues them here. After an interruption of close to 15 years, he returned to his technique of scratching into film with a project entitled Scratch in 2016, and the next Places and Monuments, shot around Mount Fuji and currently in production, will use this technique as a way of bringing the two projects together. His blog, his oldest texts and his performances also prefigure the series we are discussing.

For Vithèque, this series comprises 10 titles spanning from 2005, with The Statue of Giordano Bruno, to 2018 with The Statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. Two very different statues, one exposed but invisible, the other hidden and yet more visible. In his blog, Hébert also cites 10 Places and Monuments, but with a few differences. The first is Praha-Florenc made in 2009. He explains that the third film was never completed and he mentions two versions of Berlin - The Passage of Time: an installation and a film.

The aforementioned short film from 2005 and a second one made in 2007, Herqueville, anticipate the series, the first being included by Hébert in the Living Cinema ensemble of works. However, these two works mark the beginning of Places and Monuments, as the devices used overlap. The filmmaker explains that, when the opportunity presented itself, ‘we preceded our main performance with a short improvisation based on images shot the same day at a location in the city where we happened to be. There are no traces left of most of these improvisations, except for the last one which became The Statue of Giordano Bruno, the real starting point for Places and Monuments’.

To establish a list of films in the series, they could be categorized in the following way:

  1. The premise, integrated at the end of the series: The Statue of Giordano Bruno (2005) and Herqueville (2007). The former comes from a performance that took place in Rome around the hovering presence, which became obscured, of the statue of the Italian philosopher in a busy marketplace. The second, which is more meditative, evokes a town, a coastline, and a nuclear waste processing plant through scratches, poems and a musical performance.
  2. Works made expressly for the series. Praha-Florenc (L&M 1, 2009): in front of a carpark in Prague, a metal sculpture of two workers working on a steel beam evokes the socialist realism of the Bolshevik period. Place Carnot-Lyon (L&M 2, 2011): a small square in Lyon, a statue of the Republic, a merry-go-round and images of the Arab Spring fading in against an effacing Republic. Rivière-au-Tonnerre (L&M 4, 2011): Quebec on the river named in the title, a cracked rockface and the animated memory of stony sediment. John Cage-Halberstadt (L&M 5, 2013): set in a church, at the time of the twelfth changing of the note performed in a piece by John Cage that must last 639 years, the musical apparatus and a few viewer-listeners. Berlin - The Passage of Time (L&M 6, installation, 2014): four screens, four loops of different durations and an evocation of everyday life in Berlin punctuated with references to Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. Cycling Utrecht (L&M 7, installation, 2015): an installation with two screens situated on the Tour de France route in a town in which the bicycle takes precedence over other modes of transport. Bazin’s Film (L&M 8, feature length, 2017): this draws from the critic André Bazin’s notes for a documentary on Roman churches of Saintonge that he wasn’t able to shoot before he passed away with leukaemia; extracts of the script are read by Michael Lonsdale. The Statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville (L&M 9, 2018): made while the statue was covered following demonstrations against the unbolting of the statue of the Confederate General and the terrorist action of an extreme-right militant who charged at a procession of anti-protestors, killing a woman and injuring 35 people. Berlin - The Passage of Time (L&M 10, version film, 2018): a reprise of the 2014 installation with several modifications following an onsite shoot in 2018.
  3. The other films that Hébert mentions in his blog ‘Place and Monument n°3’ were never finished. A Places and Monuments film centering on Mount Fuji is in progress.

It is worth noting that the films made between 2005 and 2009 were shot in MiniDV, which gives them a less ‘refined’ appearance, with a different texture than those filmed in HD.

One project follows on from another as if in a dissolve; it seems as if, to varying degrees, one fades into the next and finds its source in the one that preceded it. Places and Monuments was already present in Living Cinema and something of Living Cinema remains present in Places. Central to this device, the texts written by Hébert serve to publicize this change, these everyday preoccupations. But, through the relationships that he maintains with his composers, it is possible to go even further.  


Those who know Hébert’s work will be pleasantly surprised to see the reappearance in Places and Monuments of certain important collaborators in music and sound. The series has given him an opportunity to work once again with the musicians and sound designers who have been with him over the course of his career. Their watchword is improvisation, the idea that sound and music can be but one. Hébert himself described their creations as images-bruits (image-sounds) in a text from 1985. [4]

While Bob Ostertag became involved in Places and Monuments thanks to The Statue of Giordano Bruno and has maintained an on-going association with the filmmaker since, the films or installations in the series look introspectively at 40 years of performative cinema. Herqueville was composed by Fred Frith, who had been a close friend of Ostertag since the 1980s and with whom Hébert had worked over the course of this same decade in duets combining music and scratching into film, in particular on The Technology of Tears.

In Cycling Utrecht, Berlin - the Passage of Time and Charlottesville, the filmmaker approached René Lussier again, an important composer and improviser who had worked at the NFB as a contractor and with whom Hébert had collaborated on his short film Etienne et Sarah (Etienne and Sarah) as well as Songs and Dances of the Inanimate World in the 1980s.

For Rivière au Tonnerre, he was joined by Andrea Martignoni. The Italian specialist in experimental sound creations for short animations began collaborating with Hébert from 2000 in live performances of animations scratched into film. They worked together regularly until the mid-2010s, notably on the music for the film Triptych-2 in 2012, among other projects.

But, most significantly, for Bazin’s Film, Hébert returned to the person who had made the music for the majority of his short films in the 1980s and 1990s, until his feature-length film La plante humaine (The Human Plant) (1996), the clarinettist Robert Marcel Lepage. In this Places and Monuments film, which differs from the others as it is feature-length and took a pre-existing script as its point of departure, he also returned to Michael Lonsdale, who provided the voiceover for La plante humaine, as if he was looking to update two older, familiar tones with a new set of images, to which he added the voice of another, younger actor, Sharif Andoura.

We should also highlight the film that was shot in the Halberstadt church about John Cage, an experimental minimalist composer whose concepts may have inspired Hébert, as he often had a tendency to incorporate entirely unexpected sounds into his compositions. In a way, this time it is the music that takes over. It could be perceived as an event, since the filmmaker films a change of note, with the subsequent one taking place many years later, as in an ‘unforeseen event’ within the interpretation of the piece by Cage. The short film brings its own sound and music in what becomes a somewhat impromptu dialogue between the two. For this short film, Hébert asked Lori Freedman, a clarinettist with whom he has collaborated since 2009, to make the music.

In a way, to watch Places and Monuments is, therefore, to listen to a résumé and a renewal of close to 40 years of musical collaborations and improvisations. This aspect is all the more significant as Hébert had written many times about the fundamental place that music, rhythms and sound have in his work. Furthermore, the device used in this series of films and installations is less determined by improvisation than the works that preceded it. The collaborations with these musicians, who bring with them their own histories, ways of working and improvisation techniques, add another dimension to the work.

Places and Monuments 2

To end this brief presentation of an ensemble perpetually situated in an interval or a transitional space between filmed reality and creation, we will return to its title. It is not insignificant that only Canada has an institution that brings these two terms together, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (Commission des Lieux et Monuments Historiques), established in 1920. The Board receives requests intended to protect historic sites or monuments and therefore preserve something from the past.

However, in this series, including his upcoming film, only one of the short films was made in Canada: Rivière au Tonnerre, and this depicts an historic site that would probably not be considered as such by anyone if it wasn’t first drawn by the camera’s gaze, and then remodelled through Hébert’s animation. Hébert doesn’t film the area or the river but rather a section of a rockface in which cracks have formed over the centuries, highlighting marks of time that are more ancient than those in the other works. More ancient because they are natural rather than manmade. Everything and nothing happens here and no particular event is alluded to other than, through manipulations, something of history in its conceptual abstraction.

While the other places and monuments come from other countries, other continents, the filmmaker’s practice is far from being institutional or responding to the demands of the market, tourism, or a form of collective memory. His memory is distinct, full of imagery, resounding. He knows that places always impact human beings as much as human beings impact places, that the identity of the one is forged by the identity of the other as well as by its passage in time. What he creates is therefore more a sketch of a unique temporal geography and, through this, the story of various places and monuments that he visited, that influenced him and upon which he too has left a trace.

He is attempting to preserve a story, a space that he has experienced himself. He does this through a medium – film – that is by its very nature unstable, malleable, incapable of objectivity, and which reveals this fundamental impossibility even more than his animated films reveal their manipulations. This medium will probably be destined to disappear one day, like the ghostly individuals whose bodies collapse in his films. We will then only be left with technological relics, but this is a subject for another day.

Hébert reveals his own spaces and, in a way, his story and his preoccupations. These places extend beyond him but are contained within him like an identity that he reproduces as a souvenir. He experiences and traces the contours of a past, near or far, rendered present, inscribed in the present (and therefore in the future) through the intermediary of live action, animation and sound.

Let’s return to Beirut, where we will let Hébert have the final word. In his blog, still in 2007, two citations have the seeds of ideas that will burgeon in Places and Monuments:

‘When I walk in the street [sic] of Beirut, I regularly find myself in front of half destroyed buildings, full of bullet impacts and holes from larger bombs, they are remnant [sic] from the civil war. […] They look like monuments celebrating events of ancient times. I wonder if those ruins will disappear within a few years or if they will be carefully maintained as national treasures keeping the memory of important moment [sic] of the past.’ [5]

Then, on the subject of a workshop with Lebanese students:

‘The work on the relationship between animation and live action is not what I had hoped for, but they are doing their best at this point and there are some acceptable results. […] Here is what the exercise is about: everybody works from the same live action shot, they all have to do a little segment of animation on one section of the live action shot which relates closely to the real image, underline or interpret or develop certain aspects of it and then all those segments are to be composed and composited together over the live action images so that all the individual segments merge into a little collective film.’ [6]

This is the premise of a collective form of Places and Monuments, of a reappropriation of a landscape that shapes the human being and that the human being also shapes, from a political, social, economic, geographic, historic or aesthetic perspective.


[1] : an extension of articles published in magazines and works since the 1970s but in the form of a journal here

[2] The notes cited here are in the author’s original English.

[3] The connection is not insignificant when we know the extent to which Hébert referred to André Martin in his writings; Martin knew Marker, having seen him ‘scratch cats directly on the film’, the latter having used the rostrum camera at the Martin-Boschet studios for Sans soleil.

[4] Pierre Hébert, « Chants et danses du monde inanimé : le Métro. Notes sur une expérience sonore en cinéma d'animation », in Protée, vol. 13, no 2 (Summer 1985), p. 65-66.



See also:

André Habib, « Pierre Hébert : le révélateur (sur les traces de Bazin) », in 24 images, no 183, août-septembre 2017.

André Habib, « Lieux et monuments : La statue de Robert E. Lee à Charlottesville de Pierre Hébert », Hors champ, juillet-août / sept.-octobre 2018.

Pierre Hébert, "Places and Monuments" – Transforming the Temporal Flux (blog)

Pierre Hébert, Places and Monuments and Berlin (blog)

Nicolas Thys, « Berlin – Le passage du temps de Pierre Hébert », in 24 images, no 167, juin-juillet 2014.


Image: Pierre Hébert, Berlin - Le Passage du temps, 2014



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